I’m going to be real with you: I’ve had trouble with sleep for most of my adult life. Initially, it began as difficulty falling asleep, where I would literally just stare at the wall for hours and hours, willing my overactive brain to just calm down for a hot minute.
Most recently, it manifested as issues staying asleep—I would often wake up as many as two times per night, every night, and not be able to fall asleep after.
No matter how much melatonin I took or how many breathing meditations I tried, I just couldn’t stay asleep for a full night—even though I crashed as soon as my head hit the pillow. Most nights, I only got three to four hours of sleep total.
I’m not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep issues, ranging from having trouble falling asleep to insomnia and sleep apnea.
I knew something had to change, but I wasn’t sure what—until my trainer at Equinox, upon seeing how completely zombie-like I was at our weekly evening workouts, suggested I go to one of the gym’s dedicated sleep coaches to figure out if there was a way to get me back on track with my Z’s.
Equinox sleep coaching review
I know what you’re thinking—what the heck is a sleep coach, and are they legit? Check out my Equinox sleep coaching review to get a rundown on the program and what I thought of it.
How sleep coaching works
According to Equinox, their sleep coaches work with each person individually to find the best routine to give them optimized sleep for their lifestyle and schedule. (It’s important to point out that Equinox’s sleep coaching program doesn’t come cheap. It’s $495 for six sessions, in addition to membership fees.)
“There is no one size fits all approach to sleep,” explains Samantha Rota, a Tier X sleep coach and EFT International master instructor at Equinox’s Sleep Training Academy. “While there may be some general guidelines—like not looking at phones or overstimulating the brain right before sleep—everyone has a different schedule and preference that works well for them depending on their schedule and activity level.”
For example, if you’re a morning workout person, your sleep schedule may look very different from a more sedentary individual who prefers a short walk mid-day.
Other factors, such as how active your job is, whether you suffer from depression or anxiety, whether you have kids, and how much you travel, could also influence your sleep behaviors.
So can whether you’re more of a morning or evening person, which according to Rota, is oftentimes a matter of preference based on behaviors learned from your parents while you were growing up.
“You can’t go by someone else’s schedule when it comes to getting the best sleep possible,” explains Rota. “It has to be individualized.”
Meeting with my sleep coach
Before our one-on-one, Rota had me fill out a questionnaire that would help her figure out exactly what my problems were.
The questions were quite extensive, discussing everything from how much I exercise to my most common sleep issues. I had to rank my quality of sleep from one to 10 (let’s just say it was like a four) and also explain my morning and nighttime routines, how much I traveled, and the foods and caffeine I consumed daily.
After I filled out the questionnaire, Rota and I met via Zoom to discuss the results.
Ahead of our initial meeting, I was pretty intimidated. I assumed I’d get yelled at for horrible sleep hygiene (even though I’m pretty good about having a solid nighttime routine before bed).
But talking to Rota was like discussing my sleep with a very good, chill friend—and we managed to get to the root causes of my sleep issues pretty quickly.
Getting to the root of my sleep issues
It turns out that even though I thought I was doing everything right, there were still quite a few issues in my schedule that needed some hardcore tweaking. According to Rota, there were two major culprits for why I was waking up several times during the night.
The first: My nighttime food and TV habits were overstimulating my brain.
When it came to dinner, I was eating proteins and veggies, like salmon and broccoli, that were difficult to digest. Eating a heavy, hard-to-digest meal too close to bedtime can lead to acid reflux and trouble sleeping.
I was also noshing on too many sweets before bed—and sugar is known to disrupt sleep. As for my nighttime television habits, watching gripping shows (hello, Euphoria!) was contributing to keeping me up at night.
The second: I was actually spending too much time in bed. (I know, right? What a concept.)
“Normally, we see that when people do too many other activities in bed—even if they’re relaxing activities like reading or chatting on the phone—the brain starts to associate the bed with activities other than sleep,” says Rota.
So my nighttime routine of reading for an hour before bed—which I thought was helping with my sleep—was contributing to my waking up, subconsciously creating a stimulating effect.
“Even though I’ve explained what I find are the key concepts that are preventing you from having a deep, solid night’s sleep, the goal of sleep coaching is to make sure that you don’t get overwhelmed,” Rota told me after our consultation.
She put together small, easy, actionable steps for me to take one at a time for a few days over two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, I would meet with Rota again and tell her how I fared.
Changing my nighttime habits
I liked having smaller goals to aim for, especially because it helped the whole process feel a lot less complicated. I did one for four days and then added another. The whole process took 12 days.
The three major steps Rota laid out for me were as follows:
- Read a soothing book in my living room—not my bed. The book had to be soothing enough to put me to sleep—no page-turners here! I started reading self-help books by Gabby Bernstein, a spiritual mentor. These were interesting but not gripping enough that I felt like I needed to get to the end of the book right away. I lit a candle and enjoyed the book on my couch until my eyes started drooping, then went straight to my bedroom for lights out.
- Change my diet before bed to include lighter veggies and proteins. I reached for sweet potato, lentils, and turkey at dinnertime to give my digestive system a break. What’s more, these foods actually help prime your body for sleep by releasing hormones such as tryptophan (the precursor to melatonin) and vitamin B6. Rota gave me a list of these foods, and I made sure to incorporate some into my dinner every day.
- Write a to-do list for the following day to get the anxiety off my chest. A 2017 study found that participants who wrote down their next day’s to-do list fell asleep nine minutes faster, on average, than those who didn’t. The theory is that by brain dumping all of this information out before bed, your brain can chill out knowing it doesn’t need to be remembered or processed until the next day. Writing everything out made me feel calmer, and I didn’t ruminate on things while I was trying to get to sleep.
How I’m sleeping now
Post-sleep coaching, I feel like a whole new person. While I don’t stick to the same diet every day—hey, a girl has to go out to dinner sometimes!—I always make sure to write a to-do list on weekdays, and I only go into my bedroom when it’s time to sleep.
I create a strong boundary between my sleep and wake times. By doing so, I find that I stay asleep throughout the night pretty much all the time—unless I have a huge deadline, in which case, the anxiety can’t be helped.
Overall, my two weeks with Rota provided eye-opening (pun not intended!) ways in which my behaviors were contributing to a stimulated mental state that made it much harder for me to fall asleep.
By looking at my sleep in a holistic way, including everything from mental health to nutrition, Rota managed to calm my nervous system to get me primed for sleep.
The bottom line: I recommend working with a sleep coach if you suffer from any sleep issues and can afford it. I do believe that Rota managed to pinpoint habits and rewire my brain in a way I personally wouldn’t have been able to figure out on my own.
If you can’t make it to a sleep coach, we’ve rounded up our 20 best tips to help you fall asleep quickly.